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Illinois man accused of trying to join al-Qaida-linked group pleads guilty to terrorism charge


CHICAGO — A man from suburban Chicago changed his plea to guilty Tuesday on a terrorism charge that he tried to join an al-Qaida-affiliated group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 21, of Aurora, stood in orange jail garb and spoke softly as he answered a federal judge's questions. Several times he turned to smile at nearly 30 friends and relatives on spectator benches, including his mother and father.

Under a 14-page plea deal, Tounisi agreed to plead guilty to one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In return, prosecutors will drop a second count of making false statements in a matter involving international terrorism.

At one point, U.S. Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan said he wanted Tounisi to explain his crime in a sentence or two in his own words.

"I wanted to go to Syria to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra," Tounisi said, adding the group was also once known as "Al-Qaida in Iraq."

The FBI arrested Tounisi, then 18, as he tried to board a plane in 2013 in Chicago on the first leg of a trip to Syria. That followed a four-month sting during which he engaged with agents through a sham FBI website that purported to link would-be fighters with terrorist groups, court filings say.

Just before adjourning Tuesday, Judge Der-Yeghiayan reminded Tounisi he had just pleaded guilty "to a very serious charge of terrorism."

"You are a young man," he said. "Did you understand everything (today) clearly?"

"Yes, your honor," Tounisi answered.

He faces a maximum 15-year prison sentence on the one count. Der-Yeghiayan set sentencing for Dec. 9.

Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm

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